Research: Instant intelligence

The research landscape is changing due to the growing availability of real-time tracking.

The research landscape is changing due to the growing availability of real-time tracking.

Market research in PR has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Companies once primarily interested in tracking media coverage now base their PR campaigns on industry trends and the attitudes of consumers and stakeholders on a wide range of corporate and cultural issues. Third-party firms, meanwhile, are leveraging increasingly sophisticated tools and methodologies to conduct faster and more accurate research for PR firms and other clients. Researchers who traditionally relied on phone interviews, face-to-face discussions, and focus groups now conduct online surveys and monitor internet discussions, blogs, and other web-based forums. This kind of tracking provides immediate feedback and enables companies to more quickly retool their PR strategies in response to changing market conditions. "There is an important migration to polling consumers online, but the big untapped opportunity is going to be in active listening to unaided, unsolicited commentary," says Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing and customer satisfaction officer for Intelliseek, a Cincinnati-based market research firm. "Consumers on the internet are volunteering data and insights that marketers haven't even considered." Monitoring online forums, where individuals might complain about a company's products or customer service, provides organizations with a greater understanding of their market perception and whether quick PR action is necessitated to correct an image problem, he says. "Comments get recycled through search-engine queries and can be seen by thousands of persons," Blackshaw adds. Web surveys are gaining popularity as the growing base of internet households creates a more representative sample of the population. Online polling and analysis frequently can be done in days - compared with weeks for telephone surveys - and are typically less expensive than random phoning. Online researchers also can more easily identify and contact specific target groups and avoid the growing challenge of reaching consumers by phone. A major part of that challenge is that many households are screening calls with ID devices, and residents tired of dealing with telemarketers are becoming more inclined to turn down survey requests, researchers note. That's to say nothing of the millions of numbers on the FCC's Do Not Call Registry. "Phone response rate have dropped over the past few years because we are just one of the many callers people hear from each day," says Stacy Berek, SVP at the Roper Public Affairs Group at NOP World, a New York-based market research firm that generates half its business from PR agencies.

Using the data

Research data is being used for a range of PR purposes. Corporate reputation research, which gauges how a company is viewed in the marketplace, helps businesses design strategies for communicating with consumers, investors, the media, and other stakeholders. Campaign tracking research provides a benchmark from which companies can analyze the success of PR programs. It could, for instance, reveal a firm's image before, during, and following an initiative. Clients also often commission research in order to publicize the results. Companies will detail findings in press releases to position themselves as industry experts or to illustrate that they are developing products in response to market demands. An automobile company that plans to launch a fuel-efficient vehicle, for example, might release a study detailing how consumers are becoming more conscious of environmental concerns and rising gas prices. While many PR agencies create and evaluate surveys, they typically hire third parties to do the primary research. Outside firms often have the technology and staffers to handle large-scale polling and are more likely to be viewed by the media as unbiased sources of information. Roper contacts a panel of 150,000 households for its internet surveys and also conducts random calling and face-to-face interviews. It employs hundreds of interviewers and operates phone centers across the US. Berek notes that methods vary in accordance with the groups being contacted. For instance, she says, it would be prudent to use telephone polling - rather than online surveys - to track consumer attitudes toward technology because most web users are tech savvy. Consumer research usually is conducted in the evening, and respondents typically are not paid to participate. But certain professionals, such as doctors, often will be compensated if they respond during the workday. Many third parties specialize in specific market segments, such as children's issues. Research fees typically range from about $2,000 for a small omnibus survey - in which a few questions pertaining to a specific client would be included as part of a larger sampling - to several hundred thousand dollars for multicountry measurements.

Advancements in collection

The growing interest in market analysis is triggering the development of advanced tools. Products include online systems that electronically scan publications to determine how firms are being portrayed in the media and technology that detects the feeling of consumers toward products and issues. "There is a greater understanding by PR firms about doing research properly," notes Chris Bumcrot, a partner with Applied Research & Consulting, a New York-based market research firm. "Five years ago, it was likely that an agency would make a few quick telephone calls and then throw some numbers together for a press release. But now they are savvy about information gathering and designing and interpreting studies." Many PR agencies also conduct their own secondary research, which typically involves reviewing published materials, including magazines, newspapers, government and corporate studies, journals, academic papers, and databases. "Research is not a standalone function anymore but is part of an integrated offering that encompasses both measurement and evaluation," says Michael Ramah, director of strategic planning for Porter Novelli. "At one time, market research might have been tacked on to the end of a campaign to track the results. But research now is used at the beginning to show what we are trying to accomplish. It's the exact opposite of the traditional mindset." PR firms and market research companies typically provide clients with an analysis of their findings. And agencies rarely will absorb the cost of the polling, executives say. "A major reason why more research isn't done is because clients aren't willing to pay for it," Ramah adds. "They want us to cover the expense, but there are tremendous costs involved. There is a tendency for some clients to invest in promotions and publicity rather than evaluation. But without market research, there is no way of determining if the money is being put into the right places."

Beautiful results Market research designed to reveal women's perceptions of beauty has become the catalyst for a major international PR initiative that seeks to change common stereotypes about attractiveness. Unilever's Dove brand last year commissioned StrategyOne to survey 3,200 women in the US, Canada, the UK, Italy, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina, and Japan. The 20-minute telephone interviews with women ages 18 to 65 who represented a wide range of income groups and lived in different regions of their countries, were intended to monitor female attitudes about their own beauty and the way beauty is presented in popular culture. Designed by StrategyOne and experts in female issues, the survey revealed that while women appreciated the traditional ideas of physical beauty, they also considered happiness, wisdom, and compassion to be part of the package. The research also found that just 2% of women describe themselves as beautiful, about 75% rate their beauty as average, and 76% indicated that they wished the media portrayed female beauty as being more than just physical attractiveness. In addition, 85% of respondents strongly agreed that every woman has something about her that is beautiful, and 89% indicated that women could be beautiful at any age. "The research showed that women who take the very narrow physical ideas of beauty very seriously tend to be quite unhappy," says Jennifer Scott, StrategyOne president. "Dove realized the need to talk about female beauty in its marketing, and out of that came the 'Campaign for Real Beauty.'" Launched late last year in the US and in London in January, the campaign is designed to create a "view of beauty that all women can own and enjoy every day." Vehicles include a website that conducts polls on beauty issues and contains message boards that enable women to comment on beauty-related topics. Dove also created fundraising initiatives intended to support programs that help develop confidence in young girls with low body-related self-esteem. It also funded the "Program for Aesthetics and Well-Being" at Harvard University, which will examine beauty in popular culture, and created a touring photography exhibit that features diverse images of female beauty taken by female photographers. Campaign publicity included the release of survey results at press events in Brazil, Argentina, New York, LA, London, and other European cities. Dove also is running advertising.

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